The greatest danger in times of turbulence is not the turbulence ― it is to act with yesterday’s logic.  Peter Drucker

Alongside the tragedy of lost lives and livelihoods, the coronavirus crisis offers a unique opportunity to learn about the dynamics of change. As the most perilous threat we’ve faced globally in the last century, it is an unprecedented laboratory for learning how to respond to existential threats and survive them.

It is revealing many poignant examples of what makes change work well as well as what hampers it. It has enabled us to stress test established change models, and identify much-needed updates for our strategic playbooks.

The responses by those countries who have introduced lockdowns to flatten the spread of infection provide some of the ingredients for effective transformation and risk mitigation strategies, but almost all have shown gaps or shortcomings in their preparations.

While we wait for a vaccine, smart organisations will identify gaps in their approach and update their organisational design and strategy playbooks accordingly. 

This article sets out key considerations for the rewrite and why it is so important to learn from this crisis. By blending strong top-down leadership with interactive communications, organisations can unlock grassroots innovation and consequently greater impact.


Why learn from this crisis?

We are living in a Volatile Uncertain Chaotic Ambiguous (VUCA) world facing many global threats that will require us to make fundamental changes to our global operating model. In addition to CoVid-19 and other looming pandemics, the climate emergency also requires behaviour change to help remedy it. Such events test our capabilities on many levels, revealing strengths as well as weaknesses. They highlight our fragile ecological interdependence. 

Lessons learned from this crisis can be transferred to other situations where mindsets shifts and behaviour change is essential. They are relevant for individuals and organisations in an interconnected global society that needs to move from an individualistic ego-centric perspective to an eco-centric one as articulated by Gillian D’Arcy Wood in Tambora.

Unlocking the secrets of effective change, can not only inform responses to future CoVid-19 events, but other global crises, and big transformation programmes as well. Commercially, millions of pounds are lost in failed business and tech-related transformation efforts every year. These failures are largely due to cultural issues including poorly managed communications and employee engagement. As this health crisis has also negatively affected the economy and many businesses, managing change effectively will be essential for post Covid-19 economic recovery.

The lessons learned from this event, can help boost resilience against future traumas, so should not be missed. 


Top-down leadership drives change

During the CoVid 19 pandemic, we’ve seen how quickly change can be implemented when leaders at the top of organisations drive the change agenda.

Although responses by countries have varied widely, once the severity of the coronavirus threat was acknowledged, most mobilised quickly to restrict movement, showing how fast we can change mindsets and behaviours without coercion to support a shared purpose and deliver positive outcomes at scale. Once Heads of State set the policies for their citizens to follow, behaviour changes were adopted and embedded within days.

Maintaining this good-will and compliance is a social contract based on trust. Openness, transparency, and support are needed to keep people on-board voluntarily. In the UK, politicians were criticised for not sharing plans early enough about the transition plan from lockdown, whilst France’s Macron won praise for openly acknowledging limitations in their pandemic preparations.

If we are to move out of the cycle of panic and neglect which follows many pandemics, we need to acknowledge our mistakes. ’Vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity and change’, says Brené Brown. We need to see this crisis as an opportunity to improve our readiness to combat threats. In a VUCA world, scan the horizon and pursue a dual pathway (which includes BAU as well as innovation) to prepare for what is coming next.

Playbook implications: 

  • To gain traction, the need for change must be endorsed by the CEO (and senior leadership teams) and aligned with a purpose everyone can embrace. Without support from the top, your change effort will fail to launch.
  • Leading from the top will ensure change directives are taken seriously and acted on with urgency; to gain voluntary buy-in, they must be linked to outcomes that have clear benefits for everyone. 
  • To maintain trust, co-operation and momentum, interactive communications and stakeholder engagement has a vital role to play.
  • Foster a can-do mindset with a shared purpose everyone wants to get behind.
  • Build an innovation and continuous improvement capability into your organisational design.

Communications reinforces change

Countries and leading health organisations around the world have been setting the coronavirus behaviour change agenda with clear concise messages, often visual, illustrating calls to action around our shared purpose. These public health communications have been hard to miss as they’ve been conveyed across major media channels.

Forward-thinking countries have taken their communications further by embracing social media. Unlike uni-directional broadcast media, social media has the added bonus of enabling two-way and peer to peer communication which means questions can be answered and messages shared organically through social networks thus extending engagement and reach.

Finland worked with social media influencers to get the messages out as widely as possible to audiences who don’t tune in to broadcast media. As part of their crisis preparation, they had the foresight to establish these relationships in advance of the current crisis. They not only recognised the relevance of social media channels, but the importance of supporting emerging media influencers with toolkits to ensure consistent messaging. They showed an advanced understanding that engaging with selected influencers would exponentially increase their impact by unlocking the network effect.


Distance makes the heart grow fonder

Finland worked with influencers during the crisis to disseminate information on social media.

In the UK, we’ve seen how daily communications briefings during the crisis has kept everyone engaged. Proactive stakeholder engagement and active listening is a less common capability on show. Social listening, for example, can help organisations assess how their messages are landing, define related problems, and source solutions during tough times. Giving citizens insight, and engaging with them in relation to open issues, can help keep people on-board as the duration of the lockdown is contemplated.

Playbook implications:

  • Clear concise messages explain the need for change and help embed it.
  • Continuous stakeholder engagement via a range of media channels, including social media, helps ensure these messages have the greatest possible impact.
  • Listening and responding to stakeholders via social media can help energise and sustain change efforts.
  • Sourcing problems and solutions by electing feedback whenever possible can inform strategic discovery and emergent strategies. 

Self-organising teams drive agile innovation

The CoVid-19 crisis has put massive pressure on organisations due to sudden changes in the supply and demand for goods and services. During this crisis, sadly many businesses have suffered, with some sectors particularly hard hit. The need to adapt our work focus and the way we work (from strategic planning to organisational design and operations) to suit evolving circumstances has never been greater. This has meant doing things differently as well as different things. Governments have scrambled into action, whilst businesses large and small have pivoted, leveraging their assets and capabilities to respond to what is needed in highly innovative ways.  

Online grocery services have adapted to massively increased customer demand, new economic policies and packages have been introduced, the 4000 bed Nightingale Hospital built in record time, and countless mutual aid groups set up by citizens online. Whilst these achievements have been impressive, areas for improvements have also been exposed. 

Frontline Live

Frontline Live invites health care workers to share their PPE needs.

Not all institutions have been agile enough to embrace the solutions offered to some of the problems that have surfaced. The shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE) has exposed the need for better planning and further organisational development. To fill this gap in the UK, nimble start-ups have weighed in as well as big players like Burberry and Barbour. The PPE shortfall has also led to innovative responses including the provisioning of 3D printed face shields and, an online platform for health workers to share their  PPE needs.  Many governments, health authorities and care providers have been on the back foot to mobilise their supply chains to fully embrace these opportunities.  


Dr. Tarek Loubani with 3D printed medical items.

Dr. Tarek Loubani, a Canadian doctor, is using the 3D printing skills he developed working in the Gaza Strip to fight the COVID-19 pandemic in Canada. Source CBC.


In Reinventing Organisations, Frederic Laloux defined teal organisations as the next organisational paradigm, self-organising teams based on mutual trust and accountability. In the coronavirus context, we’ve seen a proliferation of self-organising entities. When given a challenge to respond to, smart people can find myriad ways to get things done.

Many traditional organisations, including governments, can unlock benefits to citizens by embracing teal innovation, but they are not currently set up to do so at scale.  A new playbook and toolset which includes open innovation and agile collaboration will help these organisations evolve to meet 21st century threats and opportunities. 

Technology also has a vital role to play in harnessing the benefits of teal by enabling supply chains, collaboration and logistics. Technical debts needs to be paid now for organisations to take advantage of tech capabilities and the power of self-organising teal teams in future. 

Playbook implications: 

  • To update your playbook, run experiments internally and externally to find out what works in a crisis.
  • Create the culture for front line teams to work with partners and suppliers in new ways to get results distributing decision making and power at this level.
  • Evolve your crisis playbook and business as usual (BAU) based on what you learn.
  • Use the inbuilt optimism of design thinking and agile philosophy to imagine how to overcome obstacles and remove blockers to innovation.
  • Run design sprints continuously to foster an agile enterprise.
  • Upgrade your digital infrastructure to provide the best possible collaborative and logistics toolset. 
  • Create a digital platform to identify needs and harness community assets, 
  • Consider what assets and capabilities can be repurposed to add value in a dynamic market.
  • Outside of a crisis, set expectations within short deadlines (sprint cycles) to yield outstanding results.

Covid-19 has given us the tools for a new playbook

This pandemic has de-stabilised our complacency and exposed the importance of preparation. It has manifested our latent social ethos, signified by NHS solidarity and the abundance of mutual aid activities that have been undertaken around the world.  It has proven how quickly we can mobilise. It has also exposed gaps and areas for improvement in organisational performance as well as the need for international cooperation.

It signals an important opportunity for organisations to learn how to adapt and embrace a can do mindset to survive in a VUCA world. A synthesis of top-down and bottom-up activity knit together with strong communications, openness and interactive stakeholder engagement, is key to surviving and thriving beyond this crisis.

As we weather this storm, we have the opportunity to grow confidence that our society and institutions can work together to change at pace. This new muscle memory will help us to respond to and survive future storms, in particular, the climate emergency, as well as any future CoVid waves. It can help us as individuals, organisations and as a society function at a higher level than we did pre-crisis by tapping into our collective intelligence and ingenuity. Let’s not miss the chance to rewrite our crisis playbook by reviewing our evolutionary purpose and approach.

Thanks to Debi Garrod for editorial support and input.